The flight to freedom is long.
Behrouz Boochani’s journey for a new homeland began in 2013 with a harried departure from Iran and a harrowing voyage on a leaky boat to Christmas Island. It stalled for six long years in Australia’s byzantine and capricious offshore detention system.
Now, it has taken a monumental leap with his arrival in New Zealand.
But even the final voyage was labyrinthine. The final secretive mission to liberate Behrouz Boochani was an arcane 34-hour journey across three countries and six timezones in the Asia Pacific.
The plan to liberate Behrouz Boochani from Papua New Guinea began months ago, involving a handful of friends and advocates who understood his desire – indeed saw his acute need – to escape PNG. But it was driven by Boochani himself.
Having endured, for years, the forced submission of Australia’s offshore detention regime, Boochani wanted control over his own life again. Writers’ festivals all over the world were anxious to host him and willing to sponsor his travel. He began to push for a way out.
Crucially, the UNHCR were able to provide documents which would allow him to leave Papua New Guinea and that would be accepted for entry by other countries. Amnesty International sponsored Boochani’s visa, and assisted in smoothing bureaucratic barriers while officials within PNG immigration acquiesced to his departure.
Given the extreme levels of influence – even control – Australia’s government exerts over PNG’s immigration department, it seems impossible that at least some officials in Australia didn’t know Boochani’s exit had been approved.
The initial plan was to get Boochani to Indonesia for the Ubud writers’ festival, but a visa application was refused. Passage to New Zealand for the Word Christchurch festival, however, appeared possible.
Program Director of Word Christchurch, Rachael King, said it was an “audacious” move to invite Boochani, first suggested by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones.
“I said ‘you do know that he’s on Manus Island don’t you?’. And he said ‘let’s just give it a go’. So we sent a formal invitation to Behrouz, and he accepted, on the condition that he could get travel document and that NZ would give him a visitor’s visa. Both of those things happened, so we moved really quickly... to get him here as quickly as possible.”
The plan was shared with a bare handful of people, lest it be discovered and Boochani detained or otherwise prevented from leaving. Until the last minute, few knew he was leaving, fewer still knew the particulars of his exit.
But this, too, is the way Australia’s offshore detention regime is being undone, not by some dramatic policy shift, but one by one, refugee by refugee.
Abdul Aziz Muhamat flew to Switzerland to give evidence to the United Nations and claimed asylum there. Canadian families and friends are clubbing together to privately sponsor refugees to move to their communities. The medevac laws are, scleroticly, bringing people from PNG to Australia.
Boochani was driven to Port Moresby’s Jacksons international airport early Wednesday morning, hours before his flight. He hoped for a quiet exit from his unhappy home of the past six years.
But Moresby is a small town, and Boochani a recognisable face. By chance, he saw a fellow refugee who’d arrived in Australia on the same boat as he did in August 2013.
“I saw him by accident. It was unbelievable,” Boochani tells the Guardian. They spoke a few minutes. The man wished him well, and said he hoped to see him again someday. But the man, too, was a reminder to Boochani that not all have found freedom yet.
“This man was my boatmate, my friend. We were even flown to Manus together. We went through a lot together. He is still there. Others are too. Not everyone is out yet.”
There were more friends inside the airport: some bound for America under the “refugee swap” deal, others being medevaced to Australia. The quiet unravelling of Australia’s offshore system.
After six years forced together under extraordinary circumstances, these men will, almost certainly, never see each other again. They said their farewells too.
The immigration official at the airport lingered a long time over Boochani’s documents. He was questioned repeatedly about his travel and the papers he presented. Phone calls were placed to New Zealand to ensure he would be admitted.
Ultimately, he was waved through and on to his flight.
In my heart I am happy: I feel freeBehrouz Boochani
He had a window seat flying out, and watched New Guinea island recede into nothingness. He bears no ill will to PNG or its people, only anger at the system which put him there for so long.
“That place was my exile,” Boochani says. “I remembered seeing it for the first time. It was a very great moment that I could look at that place, that big sad place, from the other side, leaving forever.”
But the flight to freedom is long, and rarely in a straight line. Boochani flew to Manila in the Philippines where he had to wait 19 hours airside, in a tiny transit lounge, unable to leave. “All I wanted was a smoke.”
His final flight took him over Australia. Late Thursday, Philippines Airlines flight 218 crossed over the Gulf of Carpentaria and down the Queensland coast.
A final – for the moment – immigration clearance and Boochani walked through the gates of Auckland airport.
“In my heart I am happy: I feel free.”
Now at liberty in New Zealand, Boochani faces still an uncertain future. He has a visa for a month: a more certain freedom than he has known for years. He remains hopeful he can resettle in the US – which has accepted him as part of Australia’s “refugee swap” deal struck between Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama, both now long out of office. But there is a very real possibility his US offer might be withdrawn because he has left PNG.
Boochani says he felt compelled to leave because the US deal was moving too slowly, and he held little trust in the process. He feared he might, ultimately, not be accepted.
“The process for America,” he tells the Guardian, “it was too long, I didn’t know. I needed to get out, to be free. I will never go back to PNG or Australian immigration detention.”
If US resettlement is denied because he is now in New Zealand, Boochani says “I will look at possibilities”, which may include yet another application for asylum in yet another country, possibly in Europe.
But for all of its limitations, Boochani’s current freedom rests lightly on his shoulders.
Here, there is no one watching over his shoulder, no nameless guard, no omniscient surveillance camera. No line to stand in, no curfew to meet, no form to fill out.
This is a moment, in the artificial air of a New Zealand airport arrivals hall, Boochani has dreamed of, over hundreds of sleepless nights, over thousands of words.
After having his life proscribed by the Australian government’s offshore processing regime for six years and three months – 2,269 days – he is, today, free.